Simons Foundation Science Lives: Phillip Griffiths

by Douglas Steinberg

Three months into Princeton University’s rigorous mathematics doctoral program, Phillip Griffiths wanted to drop out. A graduate of Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem, N.C., where the math curriculum concentrated on first- and second-year courses, Griffiths felt woefully less prepared than the students who had come from major universities and, as undergraduates, had already taken graduate courses. His peers, he says, “were used to a competitive environment that was new to me.” Over a cup of coffee or tea in the common room, they would probe him about his knowledge of the latest theorems, which he’d never even heard of. So he drove home to North Carolina with the notion of transferring to a school there.

His father, who’d had a hardscrabble early life and ended up working in forestry, would have none of it. He “read me the Riot Act and basically said for me to get my tail back up to Princeton and get to work,” Griffiths recalls. He followed his father’s order, and that fateful decision in 1959 turned out to be a boon not only for mathematics, but also for administration at two of the most prestigious academic institutions in the U.S., as well as for math education worldwide.

Article and video here.

January 2014